Now that President Trump has knocked off Rex Tillerson, perhaps it’s time to have a serious conversation about the structure of the federal government. President Trump on Tuesday named CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace the departing secretary of state. But will this personnel change be sufficient to correct what ails this administration?
Since taking office, Trump—who ran as the greatest outsider in recent electoral history—has suffered a series of false starts, due in large part to the people he hired to run his government. With the exception of a small handful of advisers, virtually everyone at the top and mid-levels of the government are scions of the establishment. In other words, most of them are creatures of the swamp.
Some Trump supporters outside of Washington, D.C., have been wondering how the swamp might be drained if the people running the government are the same old, tired Clinton, Bush, Obama, and NeverTrump retreads?
Even when Trump brought in new faces—such as Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil CEO—it turned out their views did not diverge significantly from those of the establishment. Thus, Trump never got the boost he needed to “drain the swamp” in an effective, lasting way. With Tillerson, came a retinue of “NeverTrump” George W. Bush loyalists, like Margaret Peterlin and Brian Hook. It was well known that Tillerson relied heavily on Peterlin and Hook, who became increasingly powerful as they refused to hire any new people to fill the posts that career diplomats and Obama appointees had vacated in 2017.
In an effort to keep their circle small, Tillerson’s team presided over the greatest exodus of talent from the State Department in recent history. Over the months, members on both sides of the political divide have voiced concern over the growing capabilities gap formed under Tillerson’s (lack of) leadership.
What’s more, Tillerson and Trump didn’t see eye-to-eye on much of anything. It’s strange and somewhat maddening to think how or why Trump opted to give Tillerson the chief diplomat’s role. Unfortunately, though, that decision has led us to a place where the most important institution for advancing U.S. foreign policy is effectively a dead agency. With a massive brain drain from the Foreign Service; internal squabbling among those few who remain; and excessive turf-protecting from the political appointees at the top, it’s a surprise that Foggy Bottom hasn’t simply shut its doors and called it a day.
Think about it: what has the State Department done right since Trump took office? Apparently, the bureaucracy is sitting on $120 billion earmarked for cyber defense heading into the 2018 midterm elections. It took Tillerson months to make a trip to Africa, where the United States has many interests. Neither he nor the president appeared to be on the same page ever when it came to critical issues such as the North Korean nuclear program, the Iran deal, or how to handle Russia.
Tillerson and Trump appeared to spend more time sniping at each other in public than they spent actually governing. And, when it came to governing, the president completely ignored the input of Tillerson and the State Department.
Since he announced his bid for the presidency in 2015, Donald Trump has kept a tight circle around him. He has generally kept his own counsel, enraging many “experts.” Trump also waged the most unorthodox presidential campaign in modern history—cobbling together an unlikely coalition of voters (many of whom were Democrats), bucking Republican orthodoxy, and dazzling the self-appointed gatekeepers in the Democratic Party’s kept media. The president has managed to outwit and outmatch his rivals at almost every turn. A leader like that needs equally unorthodox people working for him, running the government’s day-to-day operations.
But so far, Trump hasn’t had that. It’s nice to see the president finally taking charge of his wayward personnel.
The president’s America First agenda has been undermined at every step by the incompetence and unoriginality of the majority of his advisers. Recently, Trump has been shedding high-profile figures from his administration. Tillerson likely won’t be the last. While the staff changes have garnered negative press, the results have worked out fairly well from a policy standpoint.
Trump circumvented his own government and announced the tariffs on steel and aluminum. While I remain worried that the president might spark a trade war with allies that we need to compete with China, the fact is that several countries have expressed a willingness to work with America on better trade deals. In foreign policy, Trump announced one of the greatest breakthroughs with North Korea in decades—and Tillerson was unaware.
Maybe it’s time to just let the president do his own thing. Clearly, Trump is uncomfortable deferring too much to his advisers. This is made doubly problematic, because much of the government is opposed to Trump’s presidency and actively works to undermine his orders. During the campaign, Trump’s small cadre of campaign advisers would say “let Trump be Trump.” Yet since taking office, top administration officials have done everything in their power to hem in the president—despite Trump’s winning instincts and the desires of Trump’s base of supporters.
Referring to the firing of Tillerson, President Trump said, “I’m really at a point where we’re getting very close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want.” Yes, but it’s more than a year into his presidency. How sad that it took this long. And, by the way, there are countless Trump nominees that are being held up by the Republican-controlled Congress because these nominees will not conform to the ways of the swamp.
Mike Pompeo is walking into a mess at the State Department, but he might be able to rebuild the ailing place from the ground up. Given Pompeo’s status as the “Trump Whisperer,” American foreign policy might start to align better with the president’s inclinations—and, therefore, with those of the people who elected him, rather than with the will of a handful of unelected bureaucrats.
Tillerson’s removal is a huge win for President Trump’s America First program.
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